The Bullpen Bubble Burst

The Wade Davis Effect caused a surge, and now a slump.

Bullpens shouldered more of the load than ever in 2020, as starting pitchers averaged less than five innings an outing for the first time in baseball history. It does not appear, however, that this offseason’s class of relief pitcher free agents is poised to profit from that increase in workload.

This year’s bullpen market has its fair share of intriguing names, but Liam Hendriks is the clear cream of the crop. With 5.2 fWAR since the start of the 2019 season, Hendriks leads all relievers by a wide margin. In fact, only five other relief pitchers have accrued even half of Hendriks’ impressive total over that stretch. If we zoom out and take a look at the past six seasons, Hendriks trails only Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen, and Roberto Osuna in fWAR.

What does the market pay one of the best relievers in baseball? If you believe the projections, not nearly as much as it used to.

Perhaps the best sign of the times in terms of how relievers are valued is what’s happened with Brad Hand so far this offseason. It wasn’t too surprising to see Cleveland decline his $10 million option, but then he cleared waivers. Hand ranks fifth in fWAR among relievers over the past two seasons at 2.6, yet no team in baseball would touch him on a deal that matches what bullpen reclamation projects often get. Last offseason, Dellin Betances got $10.5 million guaranteed after making just one appearance the prior year and Blake Treinen got $10 million after posting a 4.91 ERA and 1.62 WHIP.

Both Craig Edwards of FanGraphs and the MLB Trade Rumors staff predicted that Hendriks would get a three-year, $30 million deal. That would represent the lowest commitment to the top reliever on the market since Joe Nathan led the 2013-14 bullpen free-agent class with a two-year, $20 million deal from the Tigers. And he was entering his age-39 season at the time.

The last time a reliever who had been worth 5+ fWAR the previous two seasons was available on the market, he set the record for the richest contract signed by a reliever. Chapman a five-year, $86 million deal with the Yankees prior to the 2017 season.

Meanwhile, the last reliever to sign a contract for exactly three years and $30 million — the contract Hendriks is projected to get — was Jeurys Familia. He had been worth a combined 2.1 fWAR the two seasons leading up to reaching the open market.

Are these projections for Hendriks off base, or has the market really corrected itself this much over the past few years? Taking a look back, there’s a good case to be made that Hendriks deserves one of the biggest free agent deals ever signed by a reliever.

Richest Reliever Free Agent Contracts

The Wade Davis Effect

What’s happened to the bullpen market the past few years may as well be referred to as the Wade Davis Effect. The great Royals teams he was a part of seemed to spur a trend in bullpen spending. That surge appears to have peaked the offseason Davis himself was a free agent. Unfortunately for the Rockies, that three-year, $52 million deal they signed him to has ended horribly, as Davis was worth just 0.2 fWAR over his time in Colorado.

Three offseasons ago, 15 relief arms were signed to contracts worth $10+ million, including Davis himself. The next year it dropped to 10 and the year after, last offseason, fell to just seven. It was the first time that number dipped into the single digits since the 2014-15 offseason, which happened to be the year before the Royals won the World Series.

Davis went from a poster boy of relief excellence to a cautionary tale of why not to spend big on a bullpen arm. To be fair, there are plenty of other relievers who have illustrated similar problems with investing in relief arms. Front offices seem to have caught on, and came away looking very wise for not giving into Craig Kimbrel’s original demands for a nine-figure contract. That deal he got from the Cubs looks ridiculous now, but it could have been so much worse.

The lessons learned post-inflation will be applied to Hendriks, Hand and the rest of this year’s free-agent class. Just because bullpens are arguably more important than ever doesn’t mean they’ll be paid as such.

(Photo by Jay Anderson/Icon Sportswire) (Photo by Cody Glenn/Icon Sportswire) • Adapted by Doug Carlin (@Bdougals on Twitter)

Tom Froemming

Tom is a self-professed bullpen nerd who, in addition to contributing to Pitcher List, serves as the content editor at Twins Daily. You can also find him on both Twitter and YouTube as TFTwins.

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